The Poisoning of a Russian Spy in a Small British City
When Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury earlier this year, the cathedral city felt the fallout for months.
Sergei Skripal photographed in 2006. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo
People used to come to Salisbury to crank their necks and look up at the cathedral spire. There were also those who'd come to spend an hour or two ambling around Arundels, the former home of Ted Heath, the man who spearheaded the negotiations that resulted in Britain's entry into the European Community. Heath's house is currently closed for renovations, but a handful of tourists still take photos from a distance, seemingly undeterred by the allegations of Satanic abuse that has plagued the legacy of the former British Prime Minister since his death in 2005.
Tourism continues in Salisbury, but it's struggling in the wake of the targeted poisonings of Sergei Skripal, 66, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia in a Zizzi's restaurant on the 4th of March this year. Earlier this month, Wiltshire Council reported that visitors to the city are down 12 percent on what it would normally expect at this time of year. New advertising campaigns are planned for early 2019 to boost the profile of the city, funded by the UK government at an expense of 3.7 million.
Three months after the Skripals were targeted, on the 30th of June, two British nationals were also inadvertently poisoned; Charlie Rowley, 45, who survived, and Dawn Sturgess, 44, who died a week later. Rowley had found a perfume bottle in a charity bin, now believed to have been discarded in the wake of the Skripal attack. He'd given it to his partner. She'd sprayed it on her wrist. It contained the Novichok nerve agent known as A-234.
Novichok – developed by Russia and the Soviet Union between 1971 and 1993 - works by inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which prevents the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Those infected find their skeletal muscles contracting, then respiratory and cardiac arrest. Most victims die by suffocating to death.
Earlier this month, Rowley – incorrectly described as homeless by the media in the wake of the incident – told the Sunday Mirror, "I'm struggling to see properly and to walk. I felt like I’d poisoned Dawn and everyone else was blaming me. I’ve felt suicidal. I wished it had been me that died rather than Dawn, because I felt like I had killed her." He continued, "I've been left to get on with it with no support. The system is flawed. I need counselling."
The Wiltshire city was an unlikely host for the global news event the poisonings became. Sleepy, quaint, with a population of just over 40,000, it’s long been a stop off for those travelling to visit Stonehenge, just nine miles drive from the city centre. These days, some people come to the city to gawk at the sites where the poisonings took place, the closest they’ll ever come to real-life espionage, a John le Carré plot that ends with a car or train ride out of town, maybe a souvenir tea-towel at the end of it. These are boom times for "dark tourism", after all; Salisbury is ripe material for season two of journalist David Farrier's Netflix series. In the grounds of the cathedral, the tour guides are learning new lines to feed to visitors: the odd joke about not picking up rubbish on the floor, a few sly digs at Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The cathedral is apparently well known in Russia. In September, two men appeared on Russian state-funded TV station RT, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (though British police were quick to say they believed the names were aliases, and that the two men were Russian intelligence military agents – bolstered in October when the investigative website Bellingcat alleged that Petrov and Boshirov are actually known operatives Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga), to explain why their likenesses had been captured on CCTV in the city. Why they'd been seen close to Sergei Skripal's house. It was a strange interview. At one-point, RT Editor-In-Chief Margarita Simonyan began pushing for the pair to confirm their sexuality.
"We came to see the cathedral," they said, "famous not just in Europe, but in the whole world." The following day, the Salisbury Cathedral Twitter handle tweeted, "Salisbury Cathedral's spire is the tallest in Britain! It is no wonder that it can be seen for miles around and plays such a significant part of the surrounding landscape." The British government weren't so subtle in their response, expelling 23 Russian diplomats in the wake of the incident, with more than 20 countries across Europe, as well as the US, expelling another 100 in an act of solidarity.
As for Sergei and Yulia, after being in a critical condition for weeks, and following two months of treatment, both were discharged from Salisbury hospital. The pair's current location is unknown, with experts believing they are likely to have been moved to one of Britain's "Five Eyes" allies – the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. In Russia, Sergei's niece Viktoria, 44, has been vocal in her belief that the pair are being kept against their will. Last month, General Colonel Igor Korobov, the man believed to have orchestrated the Salisbury attack, died of an unspecified illness, at the age of 63.
Salisbury is doing its best to return to normal. The TV crews are gone. As are the reporters who relocated to the city in the wake of the incidents. "It's for the best," says a man on the market, "but I do miss the extra trade." A customer chimes in, "We all need some normality now. It was the strangest time." In November, the Zizzi's that was closed in the wake of the attack on the Skripals reopened. "One of the most exciting things for me is working with my mates again," manager Joe Pegg told The Guardian on the day of the reopening. "It’s nice. We’re happy to be here."
The only real reminder of what happened are the doves. In May, artist Michael Pendry's installation "Les Colombes" opened within the cathedral, which featured 3,000 snow white paper doves strung the length of the building's nave, to signify peace in the wake of the attack. A hashtag was created, #salisburycityofdoves. Children were asked to make them at school. Community groups joined in. Some can still be found on window sills. In trees. In shop windows. While Salisbury was briefly used as a chessboard for a game of international espionage, it’s highly unlikely it will ever see such drama again.